You can lead a horse to water and you can hand a boy a book, but you can’t make the horse drink, nor can you make the boy read.
Having attempted to get any of my three boys to read and having failed miserably, I am encouraged by Mark Zuckerberg’s challenge to his Facebook brethren to read a book every two weeks. For those unaccustomed to reading at this pace, a lesser commitment might be a good start. As Stephen Wilbers writes in his Jan. 12 “Effective Writing” column (“Reading will make you a better writer, a better person”), maybe starting out with a goal to finish a book this winter would be more realistic.
I learned the hard way that you can’t force your children to read — or, more specifically, that you can’t force them to read independently. After all three of my boys adopted the habit of holding the book open in their hands and flipping the pages at what seemed like an appropriate length of time without ever having read a word, I was forced to improvise. I learned that there is only one way to force a child to read, and that is to have them — on threat of being grounded for refusal — read to you aloud. Unfortunately, most children, my own included, would rather have their teeth drilled than read aloud, but dire circumstances dictate dire consequences, so this became our ritual. My now 15-year-old son and I read the entire “Alex Rider” series by Anthony Horowitz. There were eight books in the series at the time; there are now 10. (I recommend this series both for teen boys and their hopeful fathers.)
It’s interesting to note that none of my son’s friends (who are sophomores in high school) will admit to reading a book just for the enjoyment of it and that most will opt not to read the books that are assigned them in school. I believe that while it’s still difficult to get a daughter to read, girls are easier than boys. We have all heard the hazards that imperil our boys, many of whom suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, making it even more difficult for them to concentrate on a book. There are the all-consuming rigors of sports, followed by the less rigorous but just as consuming video games. The list of things they would rather do than read is exhaustive, and the excuses for having failed to read what is assigned them just as extensive. Sadly, many of these nonreading boys become lifelong nonreading men. For example: After signing and handing over the memoir I’d just written to one of my narcotics-investigator friends, he promised that he would read the book — and that it would be the first book he’d read in his life. It has been six years since that handoff, and while it may not be the most riveting literature, he set it down several years ago and has yet to pick it back up.
As for my boys, two of them are now adults, 25 and 26. Miraculously, even though everything I tried failed, they both read! I get profound pleasure in handing them off a historical nonfiction such as Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” or a classic novel like James Clavell’s “Shogun.”
That they can experience this joy, and in so doing enrich their lives and make them better, smarter writers and people, as Wilbers suggests, gives me great satisfaction.
My 15-year-old high school sophomore is another story. While he witnesses both his mother and father read on a daily basis and hears us talk glowingly about the books we read, he has zero desire to read a book. We have tried everything anyone has ever suggested, and he’s too old to sit beside me and read aloud. It’s an interesting conundrum from a parent’s perspective, since as parents you can give your children just about anything you want for them, including a college education, but enriching their lives through reading is something they have to choose for themselves. One thing I’ve never tried is a “dare.” So, here goes: Henry, I dare you to read this.
Richard Greelis, of Bloomington, is a retired cop, author and teacher.